Iso’s Fabulous Grifo A3/L: Interludes with a Legend

For the better part of four decades, this wonderful one-off machine has floated in and out of my life. The sensational Iso Grifo A3/L prototype was one of the star lots of auction week in Arizona in mid-January, and is really the car that put nascent gran turismo constructor Iso on the map in the early 1960s with its starring role at 1963’s Turin Auto Show.

For me it was the classified section of the local newspaper. This was back in the mid-1970s, when an ad stated something like “Ferrari looks and performance with American reliability.” Suitably intrigued, I went and looked, and ended up purchasing 1964 Iso Rivolta GT chassis #250 for around the price of a Ford Pinto. The Iso marque quickly hooked me, and what this European Sports/GT-centric college student loved about them was the quality of their engineering, the integrity of their construction and design, and the reliability of an American drivetrain. This last point was important, for as stylist/designer Giorgetto Giugiaro noted many years ago, the 1960s were still a period when you didn’t know if you would make it to your final destination—which was one reason Iso used Chevrolet (and later, Ford) engines.

The Iso Grifo A3/L (left in photo) first entered my life in 1979-80 when it was unearthed in southern California. I don’t recall the particulars on how it was found, but my friend and co-founder of the Iso & Bizzarrini Owners Club Louis Vandenberg went over to see the car in late summer/early fall of 1980. The owner had it sitting in his garage, and it hadn’t run in ages so we pushed it out into the street, and used my Grifo (chassis #121) to jumpstart it.

Once the car was in the driveway, I quickly learned that nobody knew anything about Isos. There was no internet, websites, club or books to turn to so I had to play dogged detective and constantly dig for morsels of information—which led to finding what has to be one of the Holy Grails of the Iso world, the Grifo A3/L.

How It Came to Be

It popped on my radar around 1979-1980 when I had my second Grifo (chassis 121), and knew enough to realize what had been uncovered. The one-off prototype was exhibited on Carrozzeria Bertone’s stand at 1963’s Turin Auto Show, and was one of the “Salone’s” true stars. Years later in correspondence with Nuccio Bertone (and believe me when I say I never had a clue I would be corresponding with Nuccio Bertone when I started!), he said, “It wasn’t Iso that asked me for the car. Rather, it was my own personal initiative to get my own personal car. Once completed, the car has given me indescribable feelings. Of course the final idea was to mass produce it.”

I long dreamt of owning the one-off Iso Grifo A3/L, but its $25,000 price tag in the 1980s was beyond my budget. What was interesting was no one else wanted to pay that much, so it stayed with its owner. I eventually did something smart and told John Ling, a friend who was also into Isos, Bizzarrinis and a whole bunch of other stuff, about it. John promptly bought it, and ended up doing a Pebble Beach quality restoration on the car. It got 2nd in class at Pebble in 1989, and won the prestigious “Most Elegant Closed Car” award. Looking at the sleekness and beauty of that profile, let alone the superb proportions, it is easy to understand why it was considered most elegant.

Which is exactly what happened, for shortly after that Turin Show introduction the A3/L underwent development testing by Iso personnel. After that was completed, the factory records show it being sold in 1964 in Belgium. When and how it made its way to America remains a mystery, but by the time I was bitten by the Iso bug in the mid-1970s the A3/L was residing in southern California.

Hello, Old Friend

Imagine the surprise I got when the car surfaced not too far from where I was going to college. By then Louis Vandenberg and I had started the Iso & Bizzarrini Owners Club, so we jumped in my Grifo (chassis #121), and headed out. From what I remember the owner’s house was in a nice middle class neighborhood, and after we opened the garage door and stared in amazement, we pushed the A3/L out onto the street so it could be jumpstarted, using my Grifo! As beautiful as the production Grifo was, the A3/L was even more spectacular, with a lower and more rakish roof and beltline, hood and rear deck. Plus it had numerous custom coachwork touches such as the stainless steel rollbar, the channel down the center of the hood, the trick exhaust headers that wrapped into the rocker panels, and more.

I was fortunate to spend some time behind the wheel of Iso’s prototype A3/L Grifo before it underwent its Pebble Beach-winning restoration. It’s lower roofline made the driver’s compartment a bit tight, a shortcoming that was addressed in the production Grifos. The instrument panel carried over into production, and the impression that struck me most from behind the wheel was how you could really sense the car’s potential. It may have been a little rough around the edges, but it was a complete package, only in need of refinement. Which is exactly what Iso and Bertone did as the production Grifo received rave reviews by the magazines, being called “the best two-seater that money can buy,” and more…

For years I dreamt of buying the thing, and even talked with a friend who supplied cars to Hollywood. At the time there was a fantastic gangster TV series set in early 1960s’ Las Vegas called “Crime Story,” and I thought the A3/L would be the perfect car for antagonist Ray Luca (played by Tony Denison) to drive, and a way for me to afford it…

Perfect Timing

In the end that remained a pipe dream, so I did something infinitely more practical: called friend and Iso and Bizzarrini enthusiast John Ling, and told him about the car. He promptly bought it and, working with his friend and noted Mercedes restorer Scott Grundfor, completely restored the one-off Grifo. Amazingly, the A3/L ended up being the catalyst for my becoming a Chief Class Judge at Pebble Beach. In 1988 as the restoration was in process, I contacted Lorin Tyron, a prince of a man who was one of the show’s co-chairs, and asked if the Iso could be shown the following year. “The timing of your call is perfect,” he said. “We are going to do an Italian Custom Coachwork class.” When he told me the cutoff would be 1960, I replied they should really go to 1970, and offered to send him examples of post-1960 coachwork. He said yes, I photocopied pages out of some books of cars I knew the whereabouts of, and sent them over. He called a few days later to thank me, and ended up asking if I would like to be a Chief Class Judge.

At Gooding & Company’s auction last month in Scottsdale Arizona, the Iso Grifo A3/L was one of the week’s star lots, for prototypes like this don’t come up for sale that often. It showed the Grifo legend lives on, bringing $1.76 million all in (hammer price plus buyer’s premium). One dealer later told me he thought it was the bargain of the week, and having almost four decades of on-and-off history with the car, it was hard to disagree.

After the A3/L was restored, it went to Pebble, got second in class and the prestigious “Most Elegant, Closed Car” trophy. That was 1989, and three years later I photographed it for the shoot you see here. It went through several owners over the next two-plus decades, ending up with a somewhat mercurial collector in Hong Kong who, based upon what else is in his collection, really knows his cars.

Five Decades Later…

Then in December 2017 I got some calls that made it clear the A3/L had unexpectedly come on the market. It was one of the star lots at Gooding & Company’s auction earlier this month in Scottsdale, and I ended up advising its new owner shortly before it crossed the block. While examining it I called former owner/restorer John Ling with questions such as was the paint indeed what was seen at Turin in 1963, or creative license. (It was color matched to an original chip found under the windshield’s weather stripping.)

At Gooding & Company’s auction last month in Scottsdale Arizona, the Iso Grifo A3/L was one of the week’s star lots, for prototypes like this don’t come up for sale that often. It showed the Grifo legend lives on, bringing $1.76 million all in (hammer price plus buyer’s premium). One dealer later told me he thought it was the bargain of the week, and having almost four decades of on-and-off history with the car, it was hard to disagree.

Prior to the restoration, I was blessed to put a number of miles on the A3/L. The memories are somewhat dim now, but the low roofline definitely affected headroom, the gearbox was quite notchy and precise, and the musicality of the solid lifter engine and the raspy metallic din from those long tube headers was intoxicating. But the strongest impression was potential, where you sensed the inherent goodness in the package and design, and what proper development and refinement could do.

Which is exactly what Iso and Bertone did, and five decades later the Grifo legend is still in full swing; witness the $1.76 million price paid at Goodings. Which could have actually gone higher, for shortly before bidding began, a collector friend mentioned a strong interest in going after the car. I told him of my counseling the other party, and how I wished he had asked 24 hours earlier so I could have advised him, so he passed.

Intriguingly, the A3/L hasn’t even gone 50 kilometers in the past quarter century since that 1992 photo shoot. In one of the photos, the odometer read one kilometer shy of 51,200. On the day of the auction, it was at 51,244.

Hopefully it will be used more frequently over the next 25 years…



Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published